By Fish Stark, First Focus Intern Associate

Earlier this afternoon, I joined Senator Tim Kaine, Dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs Cecilia Rouse, and Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden for a conversation on creating equal educational opportunities for children and families, even as income inequality creates an uneven playing field.

Senator Kaine (D-VA) began the conversation by making the economic case for investing in education. He noted that his state of Virginia was also home to one of the first proponents of a public education system, Thomas Jefferson, and though Virginia had been lagging behind in education earlier in the 20th century, “when we finally embraced that Jeffersonian vision of educational opportunity for all, that’s when Virginia rocketed ahead.” As Governor of Virginia, Sen. Kaine worked to improve his state’s K-12 education system, which was recently ranked fourth best in the country, and instituted a statewide Pre-K program. As a consequence, Sen. Kaine said, his state was able to better weather the recent recession, and attracted several large corporations to locate their headquarters in Virginia, even during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, because of its large and capable talent pool. “We focused on human capital as part of an economic growth strategy,” remarked Sen. Kaine, “and with that talent strategy, Virginia went from a low-education, low-income state to a high-education, high-income state.” Virginia’s success serves as an important signal that investing in our children’s education today will make all the difference tomorrow, not only by strengthening our communities, but by boosting our economy by creating tomorrow’s educated workforce.

The discussion centered on the inequalities present in our education system as a result of our nation’s ever-growing income gap. Some solutions have helped us to make strides towards leveling the playing field—Sen. Kaine especially touted Virginia’s method of redistributing education funds among the state to help mitigate the differing levels of revenue from property taxes—but vast inequalities still remain, especially in the period between birth and age five, where high-income families are able to invest a significantly larger amount of money in their children’s development than their middle class counterparts. One of the strongest solutions to help all children start their education on the right foot, discussed in the conversation today, is quality, effective pre-Kindergarten programs. “There’s no question that investments in quality pre-K pay off, and they pay off handsomely,” noted Cecilia Rouse, Dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Students who attend pre-school are more likely to graduate high school, less likely to be arrested, and less likely to become teen parents. Helping children grow and succeed through high quality pre-K not only works to counter inequality in educational opportunity, but is a proven investment that leads to economic success.

The discussion also focused on a need to attract high quality teachers, coordinate curricula that align and build on one another from elementary through high school in order to prepare kids for college, and find an effective balance between standards and teacher autonomy. “We want to make sure there are some shared understandings: what are the expectations and where do we want students to get to?” said Dean Rouse. However, we know that “the world is not a one-size-fits-all world,” as Sen. Kaine remarked, and we must give teachers the training and autonomy to treat their students as individuals and help them learn in different ways.

This conversation reinforces our responsibility as a nation to provide effective, high-quality public education for our children, especially affordable, accessible pre-school programs. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s one of the smartest investments we can make. We need to embrace practices that will close the education gap between high-income children, who have more access to resources and services, and middle-class or low-income children, because we can’t afford to have an educational system that allows so many students to slip through the cracks. Our children are our future, and we need to make sure each of them is getting the high- quality education they need and deserve. It doesn’t get any more basic than that.

To learn more about the Center for American Progress’ work on education, visit their website here.